Sunday, 29 July 2012

Red-necked Phalaropes (Phalaropus lobatus)

An early start to the autumn migration saw the arrival of thousands of waders to western Andalucia. It was a delight to have good views of Red-necked Phalaropes at the Salinas de Bonanza on the Guadalquivir river

I took this shot to compare the diminutive phalarope's size with Black-winged Stilts.

The Red-necked Phalarope has an extremely large global range and breeds in the Arctic regions of North America and Eurasia. It is migratory, wintering pelagically off central-western South America, in the Arabian Sea, and from central Indonesia to western Melanesia (del Hoyo et al. 1996).

During the breeding season, the red-necked phalarope is strongly associated with fresh water, especially ponds and lakes, but in winter it is found at sea, often far from the coast. The wintering areas for the Svalbard population are not known, but the Fennoscandian population’s south-easterly migration takes them to the Arabian Sea, Gulf of Aden and the Persian Gulf for over-wintering. Some birds do go off course and head down to Africa via northern and continental European countries

There were four birds present on the 27th-28th of July, feeding with other waders and gulls, particularly Dunlin, Pied Avocet, Curlew Sandpiper, Black-tailed Godwit and Little Stint

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Mediterranean Chameleon

Chewing on a wasp. Sometimes life's like that, but most of the time life's good..!

He's back! Our Mediterranean Chameleon that visits our garden casually strolled across the grass as I was working outside yesterday. He looked up at me and walked slowly up to my leg. Amazed, I started talking to him like some mad man. I then picked him up to see how he was and saw that he was in excellent shape. He didn't inflate himself or hiss at me as they do when startled or frightened, but opened his mouth wide in a kind of half-hearted gesture.

I had been photographing some of the insects on the mint bed earlier on, so my camera was at hand in the shade. Just in case any wanted to know what I've been shooting the recent macro subjects with, I use a 90mm Tamron SP DI macro lens at f/2.8 with my older Canon 50D body.

I started taking a few shots of him on the small wall then placed him on the mint while I settled down to see if he would hunt any of the insects as the flowering mint is buzzing with insects.

He quickly focused with one eye on a few wasps and inched forward to within striking range. The other eye was scanning the other side of the flower bed and some flies, beetles and butterflies were on that side. Their independent rolling of their bulbous, somewhat external eyes work a bit like some of those security cameras you often see on walls or ceilings. It's a bit disconcerting to watch and I was wondering what insects if any he'd try and capture.

I waited and watched, fascinated by his eyes and taking in all the fantastic patterns and shapes of each of his reptilian scales. Chameleons have fascinating skin and his colour was almost matching the fresh green leaves around the base of the plants and as he inched forward you could quite easily lose his exact position, but then he stopped again and stared at movement to the side.

There was a wasp to his right and he was preparing to strike. I could see that he was bringing his long tongue up from the back of his mouth and adjusting it forward in a pile. A split second later he opened his mouth slowly and launched his long tongue out at the wasp, smacking it fully on the back with the sticky tip, then with the same speed, pulling it back into his mouth, letting the tongue go back but biting the wasp as it came onto the fine rows of tiny teeth. A few crushing chews later he swallowed the insect whole. I was so pleased to have witnesses something like this in our own garden, which was completely natural and not staged or set up in any way.

The Chameleon then put on a great show catching mainly wasp species and taking advantage of the high density of insect life. Amazingly I did manage to get some action shots of him hunting. I used a very high speed for this at a 3000th/sec and was still too slow. In this shot I focused on the Chameleon rather than the wasp which was closer to me and managed to get an open view down the Chameleon's throat just before he brought the wasp back and closed his mouth! All this in a nano-second and all the shots were hand held... When I looked for him this morning he wasn't anywhere to be seen but then again they do have fantastic camouflage and he was probably sleeping off yesterday's feast...

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Early Migration over the Parched Earth

A Rufous Bush Robin (Cercotrichas galactotes) makes a great subject against a splash of colour, perching amongst the ripening sunflower heads

As the summer tourist season gets underway here in south-western Andalucia, the baked countryside is at its greatest risk from wild fires. In the north of Spain around Girona, forest fires have claimed a few lives and reports from that area suggest that disgarded cigarette ends started the blaze. We have had a few fires here as well but fortunately nothing so harrowing.

Some Rufous Bush Robins have already started to cross The Strait and return to their wintering grounds in Equatorial Africa. I wasn't aware until recently that Rufous Bush Robin's nests are parasitized by the Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus).

Dried thistle stems make good perches for Rufous Bush Robin

A profile of this very handsome bird which is a lot brighter in colour than the eastern race

Always an impressive sight, a 'kettle' of White Storks high above the Spanish countryside

There has been a huge amount of White Stork movement this week around the coast. All along the flat plains where thermals are at their most powerful, the juvenile and adult White Storks rise high into the hot air currents, spiralling to enormous heights. Watching them in such huge numbers is always fascinating. I know that we are very lucky to be able to witness such spectacles and some 'kettles' have already crossed The Strait and are, as I type, heading south through Morocco.

Black Kites pass over our house

The first migrant species of raptor that leaves Europe is the Black Kite. They are the first ones back in Europe around February each year. Again, this week has seen birds crossing The Strait of Gibraltar in big numbers and it's quite common to see them in amongst the storks or even higher in the sky.

This sub-adult Egyptian Vulture was also heading south

A trio of Griffon Vultures glide past the coast at Bolonia

Griffon Vultures are expert gliding birds and barely need to flap and use valuable energy. They can fly high at exceptionally high altitudes and take advantage of high jet stream currents. Juvenile and non-breeding birds also migrate south or search for food all the way down Africa's Atlantic Ocean coastline often to West Africa. A good number of birds return to southern Spain during August/September and with them come juvenile Rüppell's Vultures which can usually be seen around this time in Cadiz province, Andalucia. The Rüppell's northern most distribution is around the Senegambia zone.

A flurry of Spanish Sparrows

With perfect camouflage against the brown countryside, this newly fledged Woodchat Shrike makes its own way in life as its parents leave their breeding areas here in southern Europe and head south once again

We have had more southern movement of adult Montagu's Harriers and some arrivals of juveniles in the La Janda area. Here they stop off and feed on dragonflies, darters, small passerines and small rodents.

It's always great to catch up with the darker or melanistic form of the Montagu's Harrier. Most of these northern Iberian breeding birds arrive later in early September and can spend some weeks with us before flying south across The Strait.

Booted Eagle

Short-toed Eagle

Greater Flamingo, juvenile

Adults in formation flight

Zitting Cisticola

Cetti's Warbler (Taken earlier in the year)

Crag Martin


Collared Pratincole
- what amazing adeptness of flight that these last two species show.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Mint - Attracting Insects at Home

Small Copper butterfly

A Small Copper Butterfly feeds on the nectar from mint flowers in our garden

Mint...just say the word and cool, refreshing images come to mind: frosty glasses of lemonade garnished with curly sprigs of spearmint; the clean, chilling taste of an extra strong mint. Even chewing gum, mouthwash, and toothpaste companies use images of crisp, clean snowy slopes to let us know how refreshing their mint flavored products are. Delicious recipes for soups and deserts. Remedies for various health troubles and countless other uses. But take time to look around at flowering mint plants in summer and you'll quickly realise what a magnet it is for insect life.

Leaf Bugs can be quite variable in colour

Mint is a plant that has thought to have originated in Asia and the Mediterranean region.

Geranium Bronze

In many cultures, mint symbolised hospitality and was offered as a sign of welcome and friendship to guests as they arrived.

In North Africa and the Middle East mint tea is still served to guests on their arrival, whilst in ancient Greece, the leaves of mint were rubbed onto the dining table, which was a sign of their warm greeting.

Common Blue

Sawfly species

Mint was also often used as an air freshener and was placed in the rooms of houses, synagogues and temples to clear and freshen the air and rid the smell of unpleasant odours from the room. The Greeks and the Romans used mint as a perfume and a bath scent, as well as using it in medicine and in cooking.

Bee - Anthidium species

Holly Blue

Mint was so revered by the ancient Greeks that they named the plant after the mythical character Minthe.
According to Greek myth, Minthe or Menthe as she is also known, was a river nymph. Hades, the God of the Underworld, fell in love with Minthe and wanted to make her his lover. However, Persephone, Hades's wife found out and in a fit of rage turned Minthe into a plant, so that everyone would walk all over her and trample her. Unable to undo the spell, Hades gave Minthe a wonderful aroma so that he could smell her and be near her when people trod on her.

It may be that this particular little chap is a species called Aporodes floralis. Unfortunately I don't have an English name for it. The moth is about the size of my small finger-nail and very tricky to photograph, hand-held.
Many thanks to my big pal Mick Richardson from Granada's Loja Wildlife for help with identifying this and other insects.

Digger Wasp

Digger Wasp

Growing mint is a simple proposition; it is keeping it from taking over the garden that takes work. Given medium rich, moist soil and shade to dappled sunlight, mint will thrive and soon form a lush, thick carpet. Keep it cut back, especially once it begins to bloom, otherwise it will become invasive. Since many of the varieties propagate from underground runners, you may have to just pull out wandering plants. Most mints thrive as house plants as well.

Another Sawfly species

Another Digger Wasp species

Small Copper

Small Copper

This could be a Sawfly species?

The eye of an Egyptian Grasshopper

This looks like a Longhorn Beetle species but please feel free to share you knowledge if you know different

Mint contains a number of vitamins and minerals, which are vital to maintain a healthy body. Mint is rich in Vitamins A and C and also contains smaller amounts of Vitamin B2. Vitamin C is an important antioxidant and may help to decrease the risk of certain cancers such as colon and rectal cancer. Although mint may be consumed in small quantities, the vital nutrients obtained are still beneficial to one's health.

Mint also contains a wide range of essential minerals such as manganese, copper, iron, potassium and calcium.

A word of note: Don't take mint products if you are taking homeopathic medicines as they apparently counter act each other's properties.

Violet Carpenter Bee

A huge iridescent deep blue coloured flying insect that makes an incredible buzzing sound, carrying such a weight for it's small wings. It's a real bruiser and one might think that when you hear and see one, you may think that it's aggressive stinging insect, but not so. It's completely harmless and goes about it's business
without attracting too many predators. I wonder why...

A close view of the bee's head and jaws

All images were taken with Canon D50 and a Tamron SP DI 90mm macro lens (1-1) f/2.8. All images were hand-held without extension rings.